Parasite attacks Morisset kangaroos: poll  

MORE than 150 kangaroos are believed to have died in less than a month after an outbreak of a parasitic infection led to the discovery of up to 10 carcasses a day in the grounds of Morisset Hospital.

Alarmed wildlife rescue carers called in the authorities after finding too many of the dead animals to dispose of, prompting a joint investigation involving the RSPCA, Department of Primary Industries, Taronga Zoo experts, the Office of Environment of Heritage and others.

Kangaroos at Morisset. Pic: Dean Osland.

Native Animal Trust Fund president Audrey Koosmen said dead kangaroos were first reported to the organisation, which has cared for the animals at the site for some years, about three weeks ago.

Initially she thought it was the work of more “ratbags” who had run over or attacked the animals in the past.

But with large adult eastern grey kangaroos dying quickly, and more carcasses being discovered, the organisation realised “there’s something really wrong with these animals”.

“There’s a lot of little orphans left too,” she said.

“We had to bring the department in and say ‘we can’t cope with this any more’, when we had to dispose of [the carcasses].”

Initial findings show “no evidence of malicious poisoning” and that the kangaroos have been infected with a blood-borne parasite called Babesia, although the species has yet to be identified.

In livestock, it is referred to as “tick fever”, capable of swiftly killing large cattle and requiring quarantines for large outbreaks.

Samples of the kangaroos have been sent to Taronga Zoo this week for autopsy.

A Department of Primary Industries spokeswoman said other samples had been sent to its Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute.

“Babesia macropus has previously been found to infect kangaroos in Australia,” she said.

“This species is not known to have the potential to spread to humans.”

Hunter New England Health reminded staff and clients of the psychiatric hospital not to touch the animals.

Ground staff have also been asked to wear masks and protective equipment when disposing of the roos.

But animal rescuers are angry large numbers of tourists have ignored signs and fed the kangaroos bread, drawing large numbers of both humans and animals to what has become an unofficial visitor attraction.

“I have never seen so many animals in the one spot. I think they’re over-grazed, they may have contaminated their own area,” Ms Koosmen said.

“Now when you drive in the gates – honest to God, when I got down there, there was probably 150 of them waiting at the gate for the [tourist] buses.”

Ms Koosmen was stunned to witness foreign tourists recently pull a joey from its mother’s pouch for a photo.

“Then one of them was trying to cuddle this big buck who’s about six foot tall. I said ‘leave him alone, he’s a father, he’ll bite you, he’ll kick you’,” she said.

Hunter New England Health population health service director Dr David Durrheim said the number of people visiting the grounds was a concern, “and we request that tour operators and other visitor information websites remove any reference to the facility as a tourist attraction”.

Bland joins Dull and Boring

A COMBINATION of Dull, Boring and Bland is the cause of plenty of excitement with three ordinary-named locales coming together to form the League of Extraordinary communities.

Last Tuesday, a quirky new tourism partnership was recognised by Bland Shire Council in which it will pair with US Pacific-northwest community Boring and the small village of Dull in the Scottish Highlands in an effort to boost visitors to the region.

Despite opposition, Bland Shire Council mayor Neil Pokoney welcomed the new links saying the partnership was “comedic and fun”, with him hoping the league will give the shire more notoriety to international tourists.

“A few people were worried it was disrespectful to the Bland Shire name,” Councillor Pokoney said, adding he had spoke on US radio as part of the partnership.

“But it’s meant to be light-hearted and a promotional tool for the entire shire, which has plenty to offer for travellers who might want to visit.”

Bland Shire has a population of 6000 people.

Boring has a population of 8000 while Dull is the smallest of the three, with about 80 residents.

Last September, a council employee read about the existing Dull and Boring partnership and thought it could be useful for Bland Shire to become a part of it.

“Boring was driving the initial partnership with Dull it is the biggest of us all,” Cr Pokoney said.

The partnership has already been reported on by the ABC, BBC and in UK, US and Canadian newspapers.

Bland Shire council deputy mayor Liz McGlynn said any publicity was good publicity for the shire and its towns.

“I hope it gets people talking and coming to the region,” Councillor McGlynn said.

Bland Shire has joined forces with Dull and Boring.

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Zohab Zee Khan’s performance poetry a slam dunk for reaching high school students

“It doesn’t feel like too long ago that I was one of them, you know”: Zohab Zee Khan.Zohab Zee Khan has little in common with the dead white male poets students commonly meet at high school.

Dressed in high-top sneakers and a flat-brimmed baseball cap, he delivers his lines with the rhythm and physicality of a rapper.

As a 26-year-old living in the Illawarra, the world he rhymes about is familiar to the students at Dapto High School. ”It doesn’t feel like too long ago that I was one of them, you know,” said Khan, a state poetry slam champion.

The ease with which the artist connects with the teenagers is what drives the Red Room Company’s education program.

”Where normally it’s poetry on the page, this becomes poetry in the air,” said Tamryn Bennett, the not-for-profit organisation’s education manager. ”And they’re themes that these students are encountering themselves.”

The workshop explored the genre of guerilla poetry, writing and performing poetry in unconventional ways.

Students scrawled their verses across windows, which did not look out of place in the creatively-minded school, which has deliberately coated its walls in murals, paintings and graffiti art.

”We have an inexcusable number of blank walls but we’re doing everything we can to make this place beautiful and interesting,” principal Andrew FitzSimons said. ”Engaged students learn better, they attend more regularly and they take more responsibility.”

Maddison Raisin, who says she has created poetry in private from a young age, wrote about ”a stray cat being tossed from home to home and how it feels”.

Phoebe Parkin was ”utterly blown away” by the energy Khan put into his performance. ”It’s not just words on a piece of paper,” the 17-year-old said. ”Older teachers have the knowledge that younger people don’t have but they don’t have the way to engage them. They can teach you about poetry but he shows you what poetry is.”

For Khan, too, poetry has been a form of therapy at times.

”It has got me through plenty of times of jubilation and plenty of times of sadness,” he said. ”If I can give them the skills to write and express themselves, I think that’s a job well done.”

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Maitland plans more off-leash dog areas

HAPPY: Vicki McDowall says dogs like Isis need to play. Picture: Simone De PeakMORE dogs in Maitland will be running free – gums flapping and tails wagging – if the city council proceeds with its plan to create more off-leash areas.

Maitland local government area has 12,184 dogs registered and this is expected to increase in line with population growth.

Councillors are considering a plan to introduce five new off-leash areas, with two further sites planned as part of a new development in Lochinvar.

Of the six current off-leash areas, the council proposes to scrap three which are no longer considered suitable.

Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore said there were ‘‘quite a number of dog owners who have been requesting this’’.

Pet groomer Vicki McDowall, who owns Groom N Dogs in Maitland, supports the extra off-leash areas.

‘‘It encourages people to play with their dogs,’’ Ms McDowall said. ‘‘Too many dogs are left at home and they start barking because they’re lonely.’’

Dogs liked company and having humans around them, she said.

‘‘Dogs socialising with other dogs means they will be better behaved and well-balanced.’’

The council should consider fencing off-leash areas, Ms McDowall said.

‘‘It can be a danger if dogs are off leash.’’

A council report said fencing would be installed in areas where boundaries were unclear.

‘‘Fencing is a high priority, however, funding is dependent on future budgets and grant applications,’’ the report said.

Cr Blackmore said the council would first gauge the use of off-leash areas and the responsibility of dog owners.

‘‘Once the popularity is displayed, I feel confident we’ll look at further amenities,’’ he said.

Cr Blackmore, who is a dog owner, said there was demand for off-leash areas.

‘‘You really want to take dogs off leash at certain times, but of course you are mindful of the safety of other people, particularly young children,’’ he said.

The council was to have considered the plan at its meeting last night but it has been postponed for a decision at its next meeting.

New off-leash areas

■ Rathluba Lagoon

■ Anambah sporting fields

■ Les Circuit, Gillieston Heights

■ Lorn side of Belmore Bridge

■ Alliance Street, East Maitland

■ Lochinvar, two sites proposed

■ Bolwarra-Largs, site to be investigated

Off-leash areas to be retained

■ Verge Street, Telarah

■ Bakers Brickyard Quarry, Raworth

■ A&D Lawrence fields, Thornton

Off-leash areas to be scrapped

■ Vi Denny-Bowtell netball courts, Telarah

■ Greenhills Gardens, East Maitland

■ Beryl Humble Oval, Tenambit

Source: Maitland City Council

Abuse victims shocked by Pell’s Vatican post

Archbishop of Sydney cardinal George Pell, second from left, in Vatican City last week. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)CARDINAL George Pell’s appointment to a top Vatican post is ‘‘unsettling’’, ‘‘disappointing’’ and ‘‘a deadset shocker’’, say victims of the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse crisis and their families.

The cardinal’s move to Rome at the end of March after he gives evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse shocked people who campaigned for the historic inquiry.

Pope Francis named Cardinal Pell as head of a new group to reform the Vatican’s administration and finances in a surprise announcement on Monday.

Australia’s first ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer said it was a wise move.

But, Hunter abuse spokesman Peter Gogarty, and royal commission campaigners Chrissie and Anthony Foster, of Victoria, condemned the appointment.

‘‘This is a brand new job that gives George Pell an opportunity to leave this country in five weeks and there will be nothing compelling him to return to Australia to answer questions about anything raised at the royal commission in future,’’ Mr Gogarty said. ‘‘It’s a deadset shocker.’’

The commission hearing will consider the case of child sexual abuse victim John Ellis and how the Sydney Archdiocese handled his Towards Healing claim and legal case against it.

Mr and Mrs Foster, whose two daughters were sexually assaulted by a priest, said George Pell needed to face the consequences of the Church’s actions in Australia before going to Rome.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who campaigned with the Newcastle Herald for a royal commission, said the new position was ‘‘disturbing’’.

A spokeswoman for Cardinal Pell and the Sydney Archdiocese did not respond to questions.

Thousands of ‘super trucks’ set for Hunter

A NEW plan to upgrade the Golden Highway could lead to more freight moving through the Port of Newcastle, boosting economic activity but potentially putting thousands of trucks up to 25-metres long on city roads.

The proposal, to be launched today at State Parliament, promotes the highway, stretching from the Upper Hunter to Dubbo, as an alternate route between the agricultural Orana region in the state’s central and north-west, and the Hunter and Sydney.

It would cater for ‘‘super B-double’’ trucks that cannot use the congested Great Western Highway into Sydney, where only 19-metre-long vehicles are permitted through the Blue Mountains.

About 180 to 200 trucks a day coming from areas such as Dubbo and Mudgee could be using the Golden Highway route instead by 2031. Trucks would head down the Hunter Expressway then the M1 to Sydney, or be lured instead to the Port of Newcastle.

Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner will release the proposal, along with two new infrastructure plans setting out priorities for the region, months after they were submitted to the federal government.

Part of the broader Hunter Economic Infrastructure Plan, compiled by Infrastructure NSW and Regional Development Australia Hunter, the highway proposal could establish an economic case for more goods to move through the Port of Newcastle, creating jobs and investment.

It could also help the city to be finally placed on the national highway network.

RDA Hunter chief executive Todd Williams said there was capacity to boost activity through the port, which the state government is set to lease to the private sector.

The highway proposal would tie in with national infrastructure priorities for enhancing freight networks.

It would boost the economies of both regions, supporting the resources and agricultural sectors.

‘‘If we have the capability, we should be chasing these types of opportunities,’’ Mr Williams said.

Freight operators had shown interest in the idea because it would allow them to use 25-metre ‘‘super B-double’’ trucks instead of 19-metre B-doubles.

But the plan would likely encounter some opposition from residents along the route, particularly in Newcastle where concerns have been raised about the number of heavy vehicles around the port and Mayfield.

Super B-doubles are permitted in Newcastle, according to Roads and Maritime Services maps, but only on certain roads, such as Industrial Drive.

The proposal recognises the need for upgrades to the Golden Highway, a state highway where annually an average 65 crashes occur, including 35 that result in injuries and one or two fatalities.

It notes the first 10kilometres of the road is currently at capacity and recommends further investigation of improvements and overtaking lanes.

The number of trucks traversing the region is already set to soar significantly.

About 1000 heavy trucks a day, or nearly 50 trucks an hour, will traverse the Golden Highway by 2031.

And two-way movements of full trucks would increase from 1031 a day to 2020 on the New England Highway west of Singleton.

West of Branxton, trucks will increase from 1216 to 2446.

B-doubles are trucks with two trailers that can be up to 25metres long and 4.5metres high.

The standard is 19metres, with the longer version known as ‘‘super B-doubles’’ that can only travel on approved routes.

Operators consider the larger trucks more efficient, but also say they are safer because fewer trucks overall end up on roads than if conventional semi-trailers only are used.

‘‘Super B-doubles’’ are permitted on major roads in the Hunter, but are restricted from using some bridges.

The vehicles are dwarfed by B-triples, referred to as road trains, which are 35-metre giants.

Police must wait to interview injureddriver

DETECTIVES are waiting for the alleged driver of a car involved in a police pursuit and crash that injured sixpeople at Millers Forest on Monday to recover from surgery before they can formally interview him.

Newcastle City local area command and the Newcastle Crash Investigation Unit will head a critical incident investigation into the accident, which occurred at the intersection of Turners Road and Raymond Terrace Road about 12.45pm.

Detective Inspector Peter Mahon said all circumstances, including the actions of police, would be examined, but declined to comment on why the Holden, driven by a man and carrying three other passengers, initially came under the attention of police.

It’s believed police attempted to stop the vehicle before a pursuit was initiated down Turners Road.

Shortly after, police terminated the pursuit due to the dirt road and the vehicle’s ‘‘manner of driving’’. The pursuing police may not have witnessed the Holden and a silver Ford Fairmont collide and are believed to have come upon the crash site at the intersection to Raymond Terrace Road.

The impact of the crash mangled both vehicles and flipped one onto its roof, with emergency services working to free at least four trapped passengers in the cars, with one rescue lasting more than an hour.

All four occupants of the Holden – two men, aged 50 and 43, and two women, aged 41 and 46 – were taken to John Hunter Hospital on Monday afternoon.

The alleged male driver of the vehicle had surgery on Tuesday.

Detective Inspector Mahon said it was ‘‘too early to predict’’ when police would be given the green-light by hospital staff to interview him.

All patients are listed as being in a stable condition, according to a Hunter New England Health spokeswoman.

The two occupants of the Ford, a man and woman, were taken to John Hunter Hospital in a stable condition.

Detective Inspector Mahon said the injured police officer, taken to Maitland Hospital for observation, had sustained a sore neck during the pursuit.

He was discharged from hospital on Monday night and immediately went back to work, he said.

The scene of a car accident on the corner of Turners Rd and Maitland Rd, Millers Forest. Picture by SIMONE DE PEAK.

MOVIES: Tracks – a desert journey

TRAILBLAZER: Mia Wasikowska in the Australian film Tracks.IN today’s over-connected world, many would probably envy Robyn Davidson’s solitary trek across Australia.

With just four camels and a dog as company, writer and nomad Davidson’s nine-month journey gained such attention back in 1977, it expanded from a National Geographic story to a book – and is finally finding new life as a film.

Aussie actress Mia Wasikowska, who plays Davidson, says Tracks is just as relevant now, maybe even more – thanks to technology, where you always feel connected.

“The feeling of that is heightened,” she said. But even though the need is greater, Wasikowska admits it’s a double-edged sword, because “it’s now hard to get lost”.

For Davidson, who was 27 when she walked from Alice Springs to the west coast of Australia, it’s one of the sad things about today’s world.

“The tragic thing is that it’s becoming impossible to actually do that [journey],” she said.

“We’re becoming so accessible and linked in everywhere that the very action of disappearing somewhere where you can just be you – it’s becoming almost impossible to do.”

To see the continuing impact of her journey, some 37 years later, is astonishing to the writer.

“This one little decision from one little person and suddenly it’s all this,” Davidson said.

“I do find it very odd.”

Tracks first began life in the early ’80s when Davidson sold the rights for the book.

One thing she was certain about – she didn’t want it to be a big Hollywood film.

The other, which she discovered many years later watching TV series In Treatment, was that Wasikowska should play her.

She initially thought the Canberra-born actor was American, so good was her accent. Over time it became more and more apparent that the 24-year-old was perfect for the part.

“Not that she was like me or anything else but just that she was very, very good at what she does,” Davidson said.

Wasikowska has been in adaptations before but unlike Alice in Wonderland or Jane Eyre, she could actually meet her character in real life for Tracks, although initially she didn’t want to.

“It was so strange but obviously I did. I just had to get over having a panic attack about it,” she said.

“We met two weeks before we started filming, I did a camel training boot camp for a few days.”

Davidson was surprised at how quickly Wasikowska threw herself into it, walking straight into the yards and picking up the nose line for the creatures.

The young actress immediately found the camels, her main co-stars, to be endearing and sweet.

“You always think of a big animal as an elephant or a hippo or something you can’t really approach.

“They’re like big dogs and just have really funny, distinctive personalities,” she said. AAP

OPINION: Cut, paste school reports mean nothing

THE cut and paste school reports from schools are nothing more than a system developed to avoid the fact that standards are falling. This type of reporting simply feeds parents meaningless information.

Parents on several occasions have come to me with report cards asking what they mean. I tell them that they are meaningless, as students are not given marks or grade placings. The glossy paper and flowery gobbledegook are designed to confuse rather than inform.

Teachers are not allowed to tell the truth and only officially sanctioned comments, chosen from a prepared list, are put on reports. This self-serving system means that children cannot fail and teachers and schools cannot be challenged.

Image creation is everything these days and schools are well and truly into the fantasy world of smoke and mirrors. This is most evident when you trawl through their websites.

I browsed a few. The same delighted children doing exciting things can be seen on many different school websites.

When I asked the Education Department about it, it said that the website ‘‘template service’’ was part of their corporate look, available to schools to use if they want.

The same seems to apply to school reports.

There was a time when reports were honest and parents believed what they read. In my experience, they rather liked being told the truth even though the comments may have been unflattering.

Today, in the public school system, it would be impossible to report that a child was ‘‘lazy’’, ‘‘disruptive’’, ‘‘inattentive’’ or ‘‘rude’’. It would also be a rarity to find a school report where a pupil was given say 68per cent for maths, which placed him 16/28 in the class with an overall grade placing of 52/120.

Parents who have lost faith in the system and want to get to the nitty-gritty do have an option but it involves time, effort and money.

A private educational institution can measure a child’s IQ. If, for example, little Billy has an IQ of 120 and is 10 years old, he should have a reading and maths age of an average 12 year old. (Ten points of IQ equates to one year’s intelligence.)

If the school report is glowing with all sorts of meaningless adjectives but young Billy’s measured performance is below par, parents have every right to query the validity of the document.

Privately, teachers tell me the weight of meaningless documentation they must comply with leaves them burnt out.

Our NAPLAN testing is an attempt to independently test schools to ensure standards are lifted and funding follows.

This is steering our schools away from the ‘‘Mickey Mouse’’ stuff and stressing the basic skills that parents and industry demand.

Those who send their children to private schools pay a fortune in fees. They expect – and get – accurate and revealing information about their children. There is far more emphasis on academic excellence.

The public school system should do the same.

Geoff Walker is a former state school teacher.

MOVIES: Frozen warms the heart

COMEBACK: A scene from Disney’s latest animated movie Frozen, which is being tipped as an Oscar winner.A CRITICAL and commercial success, Frozen marks a second renaissance for Walt Disney’s legendary film studio – and is widely tipped to win its first Oscar for best animated feature next weekend.

The movie, which has made nearly $US1 billion ($1.12 billion), is the culmination of a revival driven by fierce competition and the studio’s purchase of rival Pixar in 2006, bringing boss John Lasseter into the Disney fold.

Critics have hailed Frozen as one of Disney’s best ever movies, following the success of The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled in 2010 and 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph.

If the movie does win at the 86th Academy Awards, it will be Disney’s first best animated feature Oscar since the category was created in 2001.

Disney has come a long way since the turn of the millennium, when the studio had been sidelined by Pixar and its string of blockbuster hits from Toy Story and Cars to Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up.

“Just like Great Mouse Detective was a step up from the nadir of Black Cauldron, so Princess and the Frog was more successful than the earlier films like Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons,” said Tom Sito, professor of cinema at the University of Southern California (USC).

It is not Disney’s first comeback. The 1970s and ’80s were tough for the studio, until a new generation of animators arrived to create films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and 1994’s majestic success The Lion King.

Ironically, the Prince Charming of this latest rebirth had been the studio’s main rival: Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, who was named Disney’s animated creative director after his company became part of Mickey’s empire eight years ago.

“Since the merger with Pixar in 2006, Disney Animation is once more under the direct guidance of an animator, John Lasseter. This had not been the case since the death of Walt Disney in 1966,” Sito, a former Disney animator, said.

The Toy Story and Cars creator “brought in a lot of new talent to the storytelling departments: clever young writers and directors . . . We also [saw] a return to the movie-musical format after a 20-year hiatus, which for Disney has always been a specialty,” he added.

Music is at the heart of Frozen: the movie’s keynote tune Let It Go is a frontrunner to win the best song Oscar next weekend.

Peter Del Vecho, producer on the film, said Lasseter changed the culture at Disney Animation: “We’re a different studio than Pixar, but a lot of the same ideas that he learned there, he imported to us.

“The main thing he imported was that we as filmmakers have to take ownership of our product. John sets a very high bar in terms of story, in terms of research, and you always want to hit that bar.”

But the studio’s culture is also highly collaborative, with directors and screenwriters on projects able to voice their opinions about others’ films after in-house development screenings.

“The best idea wins, you’re encouraged to make mistakes and to take risks,” said Del Vecho.

“We’re responsible for each other’s films, meaning that I went to Tangled screenings, I went to Wreck-it Ralph screenings and gave notes just as filmmakers and writers on other projects come and give us notes. Our movie couldn’t have evolved without that kind of open collaborative environment.” AFP

WINE: New beginning for vineyard complex

LIKE Dolly Parton, who confesses to having any of her “sagging, bagging or dragging” 68-year-old body parts “sucked, plucked or tucked”, the Upper Hunter’s Arrowfield Estate has had many makeovers in its 45-year history.

REFURBISHED: Emma and Karen Williams in the newly opened Hollydene tasting room.

Now, however, the Jerrys Plains property that in 1977 boasted the largest producing vineyard in Australia and was devastated by fire in 1999, seems headed for a bright new future under the ownership of Central Coast couple Karen and Gary Williams and their family.

Last week they brought the scenic 3483 Golden Highway complex back to life by opening it as the Hollydene Estate at Arrowfield tasting rooms and cellar door, incorporating a spacious fine-dining restaurant and function room presided over by young Czech-born chef Pepa Hanus and his wife Laura.

The cellar door is open seven days between 10am and 4pm, and the Vines Restaurant is open for lunch from Monday to Thursday, for lunch and dinner on Fridays, and for breakfast and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.

Karen and Gary, who had in 2005 purchased the Hollydene vineyard, on the Golden Highway at Hollydeen village, 10 kilometres west of Denman, and in 2006 the Wybong Estate vineyard, in Yarraman Road, Wybong, bought the Arrowfield property in 2011.

Using grapes from these three vineyards and fruit bought in from the Mornington Peninsula and the Orange area, Karen Williams has assembled a smart portfolio of 17 table wines, sparklers and liqueurs crafted by ace young Pokolbin-based winemaker Matt Burton.

The buy-out of Arrowfield from Inagaki, one of Japan’s foremost sake brewing groups, gave Karen and Gary 81 hectares of land, 18 hectares of vineyard, but not the Arrowfield brand.

Last year they sold the property to the adjoining Coolmore thoroughbred stud, leasing back the winery and a surrounding 19 hectares of vineyard and gardens. Coolmore is adding the remaining 63 hectares to its stud landholdings.

The winery, which commands superb views over Coolmore and along the Hunter Valley floor, had previously stood abandoned and stripped of all its wine production gear and former restaurant equipment.

At multimillion-dollar cost, the Williamses have imaginatively refurbished the building, upgraded the surrounding gardens and revived the old vines, some of which date back to 1969 when Sydney-based Pacific Islands trader W.R. Carpenter and Co Ltd bought a large tract of Hunter River frontage land.

Carpenter used 650 hectares for a charolais cattle stud and devoted a further 480 hectares to a massive vineyard and hilltop winery.

The opening of Hollydene at Arrowfield is the culmination of an expanding Upper Hunter investment by Karen and Gary Williams that takes in five vineyards, beef cattle, sheep and cropping properties.

Singleton-born Gary is a former mine manager at Mount Thorley and Bulga Coal, who now heads a major mining consultancy business that has an office in Jakarta.

Karen, a Sydneysider who worked in hospitality at the Menzies Hotel before marrying and coming to the Hunter with Gary, is executive director of the Hollydene operation – part of the United Pastoral family company.

Karen and Gary have six children and seven grandchildren and daughter Emma is Hollydene’s business and administration manager.

The couple lived in Muswellbrook before moving to the Central Coast, but retained a strong love of Hunter life, leading them in 2004 to buy the Roseglen vineyard at Wybong and prompting Karen to begin the wine course at Kurri Kurri TAFE. They later sold Roseglen to buy Hollydene in 2005.

Arrowfield has been “sucked, plucked and tucked” plenty of times since the founding W.R. Carpenter company hit deep trouble in 1983. It was taken over by Ric Stowe’s Western Australian Griffin Holdings Ltd group, which in 1986 sold Arrowfield to John Messara’s Australian Racing and Breeding Stable Ltd.

The Messara group set up what is now the Coolmoore thoroughbred stud on part of the property and opted out of the wine side of the property in 1989 by selling to a group headed by Nick Whitlam and wine merchant Andrew Simon.

In 1990 the Whitlam-Simon group sold the Arrowfield wine business for $7.4 million to the Japanese Inagaki family of Toyama.

The Inagaki ownership saw numerous management changes and was hit by a disastrous 1999 mid-vintage fire that destroyed the restaurant, cellar door outlet and 36,000 bottles of stored wine.

Despite a praiseworthy rebuilding program, by 2010 Inagaki had had enough and Arrowfield was shut down and stood unused and empty until eventually sold to the Williamses in 2011.

Jail’s recycled sandstone a feature

THE Hollydene vineyard and its distinctive polygon-shaped winery were established in 1968 by Sydney fashion retailer Ken Commins and later taken over by Brian McGuigan’s Wyndham Estate group.

The 60-hectare Hollydene property’s vineyard once covered 48 hectares and is now six hectares, with the balance being used for cattle and pasture growing.

The Wybong Estate vineyard was established in 1967 by leading Sydney orthopaedic surgeon Bob Smith and grazier David Hordern.

Bob Smith and his wife Theo took sole ownership in 1983, and enlivened the Upper Hunter social scene with weekend food and wine festivals and jazz concerts in the lovely sandstone winery built from stone from the old 1840s Bengalla jail.

Highly regarded winemaker Jon Reynolds and his wife Jane bought the property in 1989 and established a fine reputation with their Yarraman Estate wines.

Karen and Gary Williams’s 2006 purchase of Wybong Estate gave them 142 hectares of land, in which there are 14 hectares of vines.

The Hollydene, Wybong estate and Arrowfield vineyards provide them with shiraz, chardonnay, semillon, tempranillio, sangiovese, traminer and verdelho grapes.

OPINION: Hospitals bear brunt of primary care cuts

MANY in the Hunter are awaiting the outcome of the Commonwealth Government’s Commission of Audit. The question is not whether health will be cut, but where.

Health is one of the fastest growing and biggest expenditure areas of government. A Productivity Commission report showed federal spending on health grew 4.9per cent a year over the past 10years. Health spending per head by all governments rose 37per cent over the same period. This is not a uniquely Australian trend.

Everyone in the health system knows we need to improve the cost-effectiveness of our system, while not detracting from the patient experience and health outcome.

Commenting on the Productivity Commission report, Health Minister Peter Dutton said the figures highlighted the challenge the government faced in placing health on a stable financial footing. The government aims to cut waste and invest in areas where the benefit to patients is greatest.

Last year, Professor John Horvath, a former Commonwealth chief medical officer, was appointed to head a review into the operation of Medicare Locals. Formed in 2011-12, Medicare Locals evolved from Divisions of General Practice. In the Hunter, the former Hunter Urban Division became the Hunter Medicare Local. Many people would be aware of Hunter Medicare Local through the GP Access After Hours service, which runs five after-hours GP clinics in the Hunter.

Hunter Medicare Local is confident that any considered examination of the system will confirm what has been consistently demonstrated in international studies for more than a decade: the sustainability of any health system is improved by strengthening primary healthcare.

It just makes sense to treat health problems before they become serious and require more expensive hospital care.

Unfortunately, what we know is that primary care and preventive programs are often the first to go when health budgets are trimmed. By far the biggest and fastest-growing spending category in health is hospitals – they receive almost $18billion more in real terms than they did 10 years ago.

A significant percentage of the patients in hospitals – the most expensive part of our health system – could be and should be receiving more appropriate community-based care.

If we are to get better health outcomes at a time of fiscal constraints we need to start using a more business-like approach to spending, not just continually pour more oil on the squeaky wheel of acute care.

Good businesses base their spending on developing a sustained income stream through improved effectiveness and efficiency. To achieve their goals, they take a longer-term view of where they will get “the best bang for their buck”.

Hunter Medicare Local can show it is delivering better health outcomes and better value for money through programs such as Connecting Care in the Community. This program supports people with chronic disease to better manage their condition to improve their health, well-being and quality of life, prevent complications, and reduce the need for hospitalisation.

Studies involving patients from Maitland and Newcastle show a 32per cent reduction in emergency department presentations, a reduction of 12per cent in the number of admissions, and a reduction of 32per cent in the length of stay in hospital.

Millions of dollars have been saved by this program alone, not to mention the benefit of improved health for the patients involved.

Hunter Medicare Local is strengthening our primary health system, reducing the demand for more expensive hospital care and providing better, more efficient access to services closer to where people live.

Some say health decisions are really not about health, but about money. From our perspective, you can apply good business principles to achieve better health outcomes, and Hunter Medicare Local has demonstrated this.

Investing in primary care is very clearly an investment in improving health outcomes, but it is also an investment in ensuring the sustainability of our health system into the future.

Despite uncertainty, the Hunter Medicare Local board is continuing to take a bold and innovative approach to healthcare, one that is acknowledged nationally.

We look forward to bringing a final plan to the public in the coming months.

Meanwhile, we wait to see if the government will not only continue to support primary care, but also invest in building a more sustainable health system for all of us.

Karen Howard chairs the Hunter Medicare Local.

Thai army chief warns country on brink of armed conflict

Bangkok: Thailand’s powerful army chief has warned that opposing groups are mobilising to fight each other and his country faces collapse unless a political crisis that has dragged on for three months is urgently addressed.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a rare television address that if there is further loss of life “the country will definitely collapse and there will not be any winners or losers”.

He said military intelligence suggested there were many armed groups assembling, including those involved in bloodshed in the capital in 2010, an apparent reference to pro-government red shirts.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara also warned the country was on the brink of civil war.

“If the situation goes on like this, the country will collapse,” he said.

Red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan has announced that supporters of besieged prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra will make their biggest move next month as legal action is taken against her over a controversial subsidy scheme for farmers.

“If we don’t come out now while the government is still the winner then the country will go the way of the anmart (elite),” he said.

But military sources say General Prayuth has asked Ms Yingluck to persuade the red shirts not to mass in Bangkok because of fears of clashes with anti-government protesters who are backed by mysterious, highly-trained gunmen who many observers believe are soldiers.

The men have fought running battles with police, raising concern about a potentially dangerous rift between police and the military.

General Prayuth’s comments followed a sharp escalation of bombings and shootings in the conflict that has so far left 20 people dead and almost 800 injured.

Analysts saw his comments as a signal to anti-government protesters they cannot rely on the military to stage a coup as it has done 18 times since the 1930s.

General Prayuth said the military does not support any side but repeatedly referred to the “constitution” and the responsibility of the government to enforce laws.

Anti-government protesters have for weeks blockaded government departments and shut down parts of Bangkok to cripple the government, which was democratically-elected in mid-2011.

Protest leaders are wanted for treason but Thailand’s politicised courts have refused to approve arrest warrants for some of them.

General Prayuth said “many sides” would like to see the use of force to settle the crisis.

“I would urge you to reconsider, compose yourself and ask yourselves whether this would end peacefully,” he said.

Reading from a prepared statement, General Prayuth said the army was collecting evidence against those responsible for violence, which included the deaths of three children last weekend.

“Someone must be held responsible for serious acts but it doesn’t mean the military can use force to resolve the situation because the current conflict occurs at numerous levels and involves officers and many groups of civilians,” he said.

“If the military is used to try to solve the problem … laws and the constitution will have to be nullified,” he said.

“Many parties may want to use this method but let us reconsider and come to our senses as to whether the problem can be resolved through peaceful means or not.”

General Prayuth urged all sides to hold talks as soon as possible.

Ms Yingluck said in a separate interview that “there is nothing better than all sides coming together”.

“When violence is used the pain will be felt by the whole nation,” she said.

But protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has declined repeated requests to meet Ms Yingluck, continued his attacks on her, claiming her condemnation of the weekend’s violence was insincere.

Mr Suthep, a former deputy prime minister in a military-backed government, said if armed red shirts came to Bangkok security authorities, not his supporters, would have to deal with them.

The conflict in broad terms pits two groups of Thai elites against each other, one led by Ms Yingluck’s elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra and the other backed by Bangkok’s middle class and royalists.

Mr Thaksin,a  former prime minister forced from office in a 2006 coup, lives in exile to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

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